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Judgement Days

By Franklin Burroughs

In late September, the sun passes into Libra, the Scales, where it spends most of October. Libra is the only zodiacal sign represented by a man-made object: a simple balance beam, once an everyday tool for weighing and measuring things, keeping us honest with each other and ourselves. The blindfolded goddess Justice traditionally held such a beam in her right hand.

Libra begins just after the autumnal equinox, when daylight balances darkness. Throughout the northern hemisphere, the season of harvest is underway: we sell our crops, settle our debts, and reap as we have sown. In the Northeast, the Red Sox and the Yankees head down the home stretch, their seasons hanging in the balance. In America, Election Day — our secular and biennial Judgment Day — bears down upon us.

By October, students and teachers have settled into the business of measuring and weighing, grading and compiling the records by which they will be judged and ranked. Slowly and imperfectly, the wheat is being separated from the chaff, the swift from the slow. For my grandchildren, the process is just beginning. For me, it is essentially over: the hay is in the barn, the final scorecard has been turned in, and the account is closed. Viewed with detachment, my CV doesn’t contain much worth bragging about or much to be ashamed of.

My usual vantage point on October has been Merrymeeting Bay. Wild rice ripens and whithers; the maple swamps blaze red, then stand bareheaded.

For all my 50 years in Maine, May and October have been the most vivid and anticipated months of the year. Judging and being judged, building up my résumé or my bank balance, have never seemed less important; simply being alive on this earth, in this place and at these seasons, has never seemed more so.

My usual vantage point on October has been Merrymeeting Bay. Wild rice ripens and withers; the maple swamps blaze red, then stand bareheaded, a stark and steely gray. Waterfowl arrive; stripers, alewives, and herring depart. Hunting — the oldest profession? — has always been the pretext for my being on the bay and vice-versa. In October, when I was still teaching, I would be conscious of the lunar and tidal cycles and the times of sunrise and sunset even as I sat in my office, duly diligent. The clock ticked, deadlines loomed, and midterms approached. W.H. Auden’s wonderful phrase, “Find the mortal world enough,” ran in my mind then, and not all that business about wheat and tares, sowing and reaping, and publishing while perishing.

Auden, of all poets, understood that we as a species are distinguished by an inability to find the mortal world enough. We create history, record it, endure it, and are responsible to it. Lately, with my Octobers at last free, I’ve sat on the bay, watching, waiting, and hunting seriously, but also reflecting, not on my own life but on the life of my generation. The best evidence, scrupulously collected and collated, increasingly indicates that we have seen something not seen since the end of the Wisconsin Ice Age: not simply some changes in global climate, but the commencement of a new geological epoch, defined, as the last one was, by drastic relocations of coastlines and the elimination of whole ecosystems and the life that depended upon them. This new epoch, the Anthropocene, will happen with unprecedented rapidity, and be accompanied by unimaginable and compounding demographic, political, and economic calamities.

The legacies of my generation, individual and collective, will be various: much to boast about and much to be ashamed of. Many of us have raised our children — and they are raising theirs — to tune their ears to the deeper music of the natural world, its seasons and its creatures, things that will continue beneath the cacophony of the human world. But our legacy to them, it appears, will be a world untuned, the scales that blind Justice holds in her right hand unbalanced. In her left hand, the October goddess holds a sword.